The European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator has dealt a blow to Theresa May’s hopes of a bespoke trade deal with Brussels.
The British Prime Minister has said her plans for Brexit will not be “derailed” and will result in a “deep and special partnership” with the EU.
Mrs May has insisted the UK does not want a Norway-style relationship with the EU, which would involve remaining in the single market, and desires closer ties than a Canadian-style trade deal would allow.
But Brussels’ negotiator Michel Barnier said the EU “won’t mix up the various scenarios to create a specific one and accommodate their wishes”.
In an interview with Prospect magazine, conducted before EU leaders agreed to move on to the second stage of Brexit talks covering trade and an implementation period, Mr Barnier said: “The most difficult part remains to be done. It is also probably the most interesting. But the British have to understand it cannot be business as usual.
“We are ready to start working with the government on the three axes it has indicated: exit from the Union, exit from the single market, exit from the customs union. But the clock is ticking. The deadline of March 29 2019 is their own doing.”
He added: “They have to realise there won’t be any cherry picking. We won’t mix up the various scenarios to create a specific one and accommodate their wishes, mixing, for instance, the advantages of the Norwegian model, member of the single market, with the simple requirements of the Canadian one.
“No way. They have to face the consequences of their own decision.”
His comments emerged as Mrs May and senior ministers in the UK prepared to formally consider the future shape of the UK’s relationship with the European Union in meetings on Monday and Tuesday.
The Prime Minister claimed her Government was “proving the doubters wrong” after EU leaders agreed on Friday to move on to phase two.
Mrs May said talks would now begin on an “implementation period” immediately after the formal date of Brexit – but backbench Tory Eurosceptics have already issued warnings that they will not accept arrangements which closely resemble continued EU membership during the transition to a new relationship.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called for the Prime Minister to strike a deal with Brussels that would allow the UK to ditch EU laws, warning that being unable to diverge from the bloc’s regulations would leave the UK a “vassal state”.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Mrs May hit out at anti-Brexit campaigners who “want to talk Britain down”.
She said: “Amid all the noise, we are getting on with the job.
“In the face of those who want to talk Britain down, we are securing the best and most ambitious Brexit deal for our whole United Kingdom.
“And my message today is very clear: we will not be derailed from this fundamental duty to deliver the democratic will of the British people.”
The Cabinet will thrash outs its stance on a post-Brexit trade deal over the coming days, with Mrs May under pressure from Brussels to provide clarity on the UK’s desired “end state” for the relationship it wants with the EU.
The Brexit “war cabinet” – a sub-committee of senior ministers chaired by Mrs May – will meet on Monday, with a meeting of the full Cabinet scheduled for Tuesday.
Mrs May said: “Brexit allows us to seize the exciting opportunities outside the EU – with Britain in control of our borders, and setting our own laws – while building the new European economic and security relationship that I have proposed.
“So we will approach these discussions with ambition and creativity.”
Mr Johnson used a Sunday Times interview to set out his vision for a UK-EU trade deal that would “maximise the benefits of Brexit” by allowing Britain the freedom to diverge from Brussels’ laws.
He called for a deal that “gives us that important freedom to decide our own regulatory framework, our own laws and do things in a distinctive way”.
The Prime Minister made agreeing an implementation period a priority to give businesses and families the time they need to adapt to a new relationship with the EU.
“I very much welcome the desire of the European Union to agree the precise terms of this period as soon as possible,” she said.
The EU’s negotiating guidelines make clear that the bloc expects the UK to observe all of its rules – including on freedom of movement – and accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) during this time.
It also set up a potential clash with London over the Prime Minister’s hopes of negotiating early trade agreements with countries outside the EU, stating firmly that the UK will stay in the single market and customs union during transition and will “continue to comply with EU trade policy”, which bars deals by individual states.